Thursday, 24 July 2014

Mot Sola (n6-), Hægefjell

An army of angry midges were waiting for us to open our tent doors in the morning. Not quite as violent as their Scottish counterparts but clearly the contents of my vascular system in hot demand. Breakfast and morning preparation involved the futile, inefficient act of pacing around in no particular direction so as to avoid the cloud of midges.

We were camped beneath Hægefjell, a broad expanse of granite that consisted of smoother slabs on the right side but more featured, steeper climbing on the left side. Many of the routes on the left side were hard but the obvious weakness drew my eye. The route called Mot Sola followed a sequence of cracks and corners up the face and screamed out to be climbed. I knew the route was often wet, which made the current dry conditions an excellent time to attempt it.

Hægefjell - Mot Sola is just left of centre

We opted for the Original Start, which climbed two pitches of expansive, smooth slabs in order the reach a main corner system, where most people traversed in to commence the climbing. We weren't entirely sure of the line up the slabs but found a sequence of shallow grooves that allowed for some spaced protected climbing through largely compact rock. The supposed bolt belay no where to be seen but a large boulder hidden behind a patch of shrubs was just as welcome. Certainly the oldest bolt that I have ever seen presented near the start of the second pitch. The slabs became more rippled, which made for easier climbing. No need for any short linking pitch as described in the Rockfax guide.


Anna climbing the second pitch of the Original Start towards the main corner system
Retro bolt-clipping
The excitement really started once into the corner system on the third pitch. This was anything between n5 and 6- depending on which guidebook we referenced (maybe n5+). Some interesting layback moves above good gear brought me to large ledge with a pair of belay bolts out of reach above my head. I needed to lay-back a crack to the right in order to clip the bolts. I can only assume there was a layer of snow at the belay when bolts were added.

Pitch three
3m high belay bolts
The climbing continued up another corner, which further improved in quality. Anna led what was maybe the most perfect pitch of the climb, both in terms of aesthetics and quality of climbing. First lay-backing and bridging a lower corner crack before traversing left via a balancy move to a higher crack running parallel. Sustained climbing with plenty of gear and an awkward hanging belay at two thirds the height in the corner. The remainder of the corner continued in the same vein before opening out into undulating ground in the upper half of the pitch.

Great climbing on pitch 4
Anna making the tricky move from the right to left crack
View back to Anna's hanging belay from the fourth pitch
The subsequent crux pitch had a stiff start... a jamming crack that needed to be gained above a small roof. Maybe gaining it would have been easy were my hand jamming technique half up to scratch (but then finger locks are never going to be my forte). Having failed miserably with my jamming at first attempt I reverted to tried and tested lay-backing off a low block beneath the roof on the right that had indentations on either side for my finger tips. Desperately I threw my legs high to a ledge to the left of the roof and then scrapped to gain the crack above the overhang. Not pretty but I just about effective. Easier, well-protected climbing followed above before cautiously breaking right across a wet slab to the belay.

Above the difficulties on the crux fifth pitch
The next pitch was a surprise to the system. It was supposed to be n5 but involved a bouldery step directly above the belay onto a slab. The only protection being the belay bolts until a rusty peg could reached beyond the difficulties a short distance above. Mounting the step was relatively easy but pinning the feet to the steep lip of the slab was another matter. Twice Anna slipped off, grazing her shins on the edge of the slab on her second attempt and landing like a plank below my belay. After much pondering and experiementation with alternative lines she concluded there were no better options. Third attempt she managed to cling on enough to move up and clip the peg. I faired no better. Two failed attempts, including matching grazes down my shins on second attempt. The aid of a side pull to my right helped me stay put on the third attempt.

Traversing right through seapage on the sixth pitch
The final pitch also proved to be no push-over with some awkward moves above poor gear followed by some stiff lay-backing up an offwidth crack. Then easier climbing to the top of the route, rounding off what must be one of the best multi-pitch trad rock routes that I have climbed anywhere. The initial two slab pitches were nothing special but what followed was everything that I look for in a climb. A strong line, with sustained, continued interest, in a pristine environment.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Overraskelsen - Direkte variant (n5+), Skogshorn

We referred to the route description:

"Follow <something> towards the right up to <something>. Thereafter little <something>, until left around the corner and up a short crack / <something>. Belay on the top of this."

...We were experiencing a few navigational problems due to language difficulties with our guidebook. Usually in such situations I would just look at the pictures except these were equally baffling. The sketch of the route showed a dotted line passing through an assortment of chimneys and cracks but nothing was really to scale or with any points of reference. If we were following a line of bolts then this may have been fine but we were on a trad line. The initial pitch was not installing great confidence in my route-finding abilities in particular. It climbed a relatively obvious broad corner system but was very loose and vegetated. The trick being not to fall off with a piece rock still in your hand. Not what you would expect from a four star classic.

Skogshorn, in Hemsedal, looked a great proposition in the guidebook with multi-pitch trad routes up to 400m high on prominent buttresses and ridges. What's more the mountain looked like a large scale Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, only it was South facing. The direct variation of Overraskelsen, which wound it's way up one of the central buttresses looked the obvious choice route.

Skogshorn
For the first handful of pitches we faffed for too long trying to decide which way go. We too often made belays two thirds of the way up pitches in order to discuss route finding. The hours passed by, clouds developed, the winds picked up, and by the sixth pitch it began to rain. We were now high on the mountain with still three pitches to go - including the crux seventh pitch. Fortunately the rock quality had improved markedly since the first pitch and the climb was developing into something worthy of classic status. Urgently I climbed a beautifully positioned steep slab pillar, pulling on prominent edges and not worrying about gear too much. Better to climb dry rock with few runners than wet rock with many runners I thought. The climbing was steady enough and for now the light rain was failing to gain momentum.

Easy third pitch
Climbing towards the leaning slab (left centre)
Photo by Anna Kennedy
Then the crux slanting crack on the seventh pitch - fortunately steep enough to shelter from the rain and short enough to be over in a jiffy. Still the rain fell... one pitch to go. This involved a downward traverse before gaining an open slabby corner to the top. Traverses... slabs... all the things I like to avoid in the wet. I needed to slow down and protect the traverse, although this was no easy task. Seepage spilled down the rocks but above the traverse there was plenty of gear to ensure I would not slip far. Some recent evenings spent unintentionally climbing in the rain in and around Oslo had prepared me well for these conditions. Anna joined me at the top. 400m of climbing were now below us. No time to linger. Besides I was too cold to linger, what with foolishly being under-dressed in just a t-shirt and shorts (warm weather had been promised throughout the day).

Final pitch - After the traverse
Photo by Anna Kennedy
We bore East over the loose scree that littered the summit plateau. Anna at this point concluded that epics always happened to her whenever she went in the mountains, after which the weather evidently took pity and changed for the better. Things actually became rather pleasant and we were able to relax and enjoy the wonderful summit views of the surrounding lakes. This was after all our first big rock route since arriving in Norway.

View from the summit
We swung South where the guidebook vaguely indicated a descent off the summit plateau was possible. We slowly descended between cliffs eventually to follow a broad, loose gully that needed care to avoid a tumble. Unstable rocks littered the slopes, needing little encouragement to dislodge themselves. Maybe 150m from the bottom we made a short abseil to span some particularly loose ground. Anna went first. She was barely 10m below when I lifted my bag ready for my turn only to watch a dinner plate-size rock beneath it dislodge and tumble South. "Rock, rock, rock!!" I shouted in a panic. But there was no time... Anna did a little jig on the rope to try and avoid it but she had a matter of metres to adjust. It crashed into her right knee and then continued to the bottom of the gully. Anna paused. "Why do I feel that should hurt more than is does" she grimaced. Amazingly she appeared largely unhurt. I couldn't help think thinking that maybe there would be no climbing tomorrow once the swelling kicked in.

We could see the gully dropping away at the bottom of the cliffs and so prepared ourselves for another abseil. Anna spotted some tat in some rocks and then to our amazement we spotted a couple of abseil bolts. After two hours of patiently descending loose ground with little opportunity for rappels we couldn't contain our excitement at this 'gift'. A single abseil and we were back on the broad slopes beneath the cliffs. There was still some more scree bashing to be done but we were now below the difficulties and it was just a matter of time before we were back at the car.

Never so happy to see an abseil bolt!
It was 9pm by the time I started the engine. Our wild camping spot a few miles away was a logging area was infested with mosquitoes so late evening cooking over a stove didn't appeal. In desperation we knocked on the locked front door of a Chinese restaurant in Ullsåk in the hope that they would serve us. We were in luck. And what's more the premises was licenced.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Observatory Ridge (V,4), Ben Nevis

It was 2am by the time I arrived at the North Face car park on Friday night. Another epic drive from London. Firstly traffic hold-ups on the M6 North of Birmingham, then snow on the road North of Crianlarich. Tent pitched and alarm set for 5.30am. It snowed for much of the night.

Three hours after arrival. Time to pack up and go climbing
The coires were holding a lot of fresh snow above the CIC hut so breaking a trail halfway to the summit did not appeal. That said I was aware that the recent warm weather would likely have thawed the lower buttresses so a compromise was needed. We headed for Observatory Gully with a vague plan to climb the first route that looked in condition.

I had anticipated Observatory Buttress to be the right sort of altitude to withstand the recent thaw but this was just a vague hunch. I was more concerned about the presence of large cornices above the routes but visibility was too poor to confirm their whereabouts. The cliffs were buried in fresh snow. Wading halfway up Observatory Gully for a closer look with no clue about the route exits seemed silly business. Observatory Ridge was right on our doorstep and inviting us closer. No cornices to worry about and no wading to reach it. Another team was already on the route but time lost queuing seemed a lot more attractive than time lost battled up deep unstable snow to something higher.

Observatory Ridge conditions were tough and easily warranted tech 5. There was surprisingly little névé on the lower pitches. Evidently the thaw had been aggressive during the week. What ice remained was in very poor condition. Thin ice cascaded over the rocks but the slightest tap would lead to its immediate collapse. Even the turf was only partially frozen, which made climbing the initial corner on pitch three particularly hard work. Powder snow covered everything, which made progress slow and gear placements hard to find. Plenty of time to contemplate how sleep deprived I was feeling at each belay.

Start of the second pitch
Third pitch in tough condition
Snow fell in squally showers throughout the day often reducing visibility to close proximity. During its respites there didn't look to be much in the way of conditions on the surrounding cliffs. At least four teams had bailed off the Minus Three Buttress area. Observatory Gully was void of activity. Only the distant shouts from Tower Ridge indicated other climbers in the area. The Orion Face and Observatory Buttress areas looked thin on ice but with so much fresh snow it was difficult to be 100%. The fragile ice on Observatory Ridge didn't suggest much to be excited about elsewhere.

Fourth pitch. Climber up there... somewhere
By the time we were bashing up the final snow slopes of Zero Gully it was twilight. Finally some bomber névé with the difficulties long below us. It was 7.20pm by the time I hauled myself over the top of the route exhausted. Sanity restored though. Finally a decent route climbed this winter, and in very challenging conditions.

Easy upper slopes
By the time we had descended the tourist path and skirted the bog back to the North Side it was 11pm. An eleven hour drive, followed by three hours sleep, followed by sixteen hours on the hill... The maths didn't really add up. Something that did add up was that there would be no climbing tomorrow. The only thing planned was a lie-in.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Lochnagar

Lochnagar maybe wasn’t the best choice of venue given that we had only managed a couple of hours sleep on the roadside of the Old Military Road. Something with a shorter walk-in was probably more appropriate. Leaving London was as grim as ever. We had lost an hour stuck in grid-locked traffic on Fulham Palace Road and we were still obviously a long way from the M25. I won’t need to do this for much longer I keep reminding myself…

The morning’s weather was idealistic with blue skies, little wind and freezing temperatures. Much of Lochnagar’s cliffs were still plastered in deep snow though. The cornices above looked massive despite the thaw the previous Sunday. The avalanche forecast looked underrated for Northern aspects. We saw two massive avalanches trigger down Raeburn's Gully and continue down towards the loch. Maybe the biggest I have witnessed in Scotland.

The West Buttress looked the exception with less snow and minimal cornice. We dithered for too long trying to work out which route to climb - undoubtedly our downfall. Eventually we settled on Black Spout Buttress but by then it was 1pm. The snow was largely solid neve but the climbing took too long as protection needed time to uncover. I found no gear at all on the third pitch leading up to and across the traverse. ‘Make sure you fall on far side’ I thought to myself. At 6pm we bailed into Black Spout with a single abseil. Bailing off a route whose grade I would usually be happy to solo. I’m praying some decent late season conditions develop in order to make up for this season’s disappointment.

Plastered
The West Buttress
Second pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Third pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
The traverse

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Boyzone (WI3), Setesdal

What was I doing here?

...Climbing a south facing icefall in the afternoon with clear skies and temperatures barely freezing - if at all.

Seriously, what was I dong here? The snow on the approach was soft and wet. Signs of small avalanche debris beneath the route. The snow was too unstable to stop us skidding on the blank granite slabs beneath. Tomorrow's forecast was 3 degrees... the next day 4 degrees... the next day 5 degrees. The next day... warmer still but by then I would be home.

We bore left towards the trees to escape the lethal slabs. Victor slipped and took out Anna. Both clambered back to their feet. Anna now slightly more bruised. We were heading for Boyzone - a WI3 that was reportedly one of the only routes in condition in the Setesdal valley. The short approach suggested it would be the obvious choice given we had only arrived in the valley around 12pm. That said, a 200m route in less the perfect conditions was now seeming a slightly ambitious task. I donned my sunglasses and stripped to a single layer beneath my hardshell jacket.

I never thought I would use the words 'Boyzone' and 'impressive' in the same sentence
The good news is that I soon chilled out and enjoyed myself. The first couple of pitches were easy climbing up slabby ice. Despite the warm temperatures my axes felt secure, and my screws were... adequate. Rick climbed ahead with Victor in tow. Anna and me swung leads behind.

Second pitch
Top of the second pitch
Then the third pitch and things would start to get exciting. Anna put in a fantastic effort leading the steep crux wall, which easily merited WI4 via our central path and in these soft conditions. She looked gripped but kept her composure to place some good screws in tricky positions. Slowly she bridged her way up the steep ice groove, her feet periodically ripping on footholds to maintain excitement. Then she was over the top. I could sense the relief and elation that she was probably feeling. Another hardest ice lead for Anna. Good effort. Highlight of the trip for me.

Beneath the third pitch crux
Halfway there
A moderately steep fourth pitch with a couple of steps led to the top of the route. And I must say, a very good route. Tick.

Near the top of the fourth pitch
Possibly the only route of the trip? We would have to wait and see...

We started the abseil descents. No bolted anchors as with Cogne, no trees laced with abseil tat as with Rjukan. Setesdal definitely felt a lot further from the beaten track. Rick made fine work of rigging the abseils. But the final abseil was a bit naughty to say the least. Rick disappeared over an unexpected overhang a matter of metres from the abseil point and promptly landed in an equally unexpected tree directly beneath. The ropes now unavoidably passed under the branches of the tree to form a 'Z' shape. A tricky arrangement for pulling ropes through. Anna was the unfortunate one to go last but unlike the rest of us realised unlikelihood of retrieving the ropes. Already they were impossible to pull through from underneath the tree but fortunately free-able from a more lateral position where Anna made an intermediate abseil to continue her descent. Double good effort. The last abseil is never a good time for ropes to get stuck. A couple of the other guys on the trip also were caught out by this abseil in similar fashion the following day - by the sounds of it to a much greater extent.

We managed some single pitch climbing at the roadside Bykle crag next day. Not particularly inspiring climbing but the ice condition was decent enough. And it was good to see Anna getting some more good leads in. 4 degrees by the time was were back at the car...

Anna leading Right Wall (WI4)
It was above freezing throughout the following night. A large puddle had formed from melting snow close to our apartment chalet. It seemed silly and dangerous to try and climb anything the following morning and so we went for a drive. To my surprise a number of routes lower down the valley looked fully formed. Code Red and A Few Good Men (both WI6+) looked positively terrifying. Tsunami (WI5), and Beyond the Fringe (WI4+) also both looked formed from a distance. Ride the Punami (WI3+) looked doable. Further up the valley Hovden Falls (WI3) looked good. It might all be academic of course unless the temperatures sort themselves out soon.

The main thing I took from the trip was inspiration. Two months from now I will be moving to Norway to live and the prospects for next winter's climbing are already slightly mind-blowing to think about. Setesdal will be an easy weekend trip for me. Rjukan will be day trip-able. Hopefully payback for all the Friday night fighting through traffic within the M25 that I've had to do in recent years in order to go climbing.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Central Gully (III), Great Gable

There looked to be some good freeze-thaw cycles going on in the Lakes over the preceding 48 hours so a trip to the Lakes on Sunday looked potentially worthwhile. Worst case scenario was that we would end up at The Works if things proved warmer than expected. With a freezing level forecast at 700-800m Gable seemed an obvious choice. Maybe some mixed routes would be in nick, however I anticipated the thaw cycles would have stripped the buttresses. We went with an open mind with the view to climbing whatever might be in condition.

The buttresses looked black on the approach, except towards the top, so gullies provisionally looked the best bet. We aimed for Central Gully. The only problem was that the snow was still soft amongst the boulder field directly beneath the crag. Ominous signs that we might be walking back to the car shortly. Maybe 50-100m below the start of the route the snow started to firm up and our optimism improved.

I wasn't convinced that any mixed routes would be in condition but Engineer's Chimney looked worth a closer look all the same. From a distance there looked to be plenty of white stuff and possibly be some ice going on. I traversed across, peered up, saw plenty of signs of winter but remained unconvinced. Largely on the basis that all the turf my immediate vicinity looked unfrozen and damp. It looked a day for gully bashing.

The first 50-60m of Central Gully proved tough going. The snow coverage wasn't giving many hints as to where the cracks were hidden in order to find protection and the snow consistency was a little unnerving. Some places it was bomber hard, other places only the top surface had formed into neve, below which the snow remained unstable. I backed off the first steep step after the thin coverage of neve fell apart to reveal nothing useful below. Fortunately the snow slope immediately left was better formed. Not good enough to blindly heave on axes but fine provided I kicked in firm ladder of steps and just used my axes for support. Only the outer few inches of snow felt really firm and always I could feel my steps moving down an inch or two as I packed them down for reassurance. I found no runners on the first pitch but after my most recent winter outing this was feeling the norm.

We suspected the second step wouldn't be much better than the first so Anna climbed a short, cramped chimney to the left, which looked to be in better condition. And possibly more fun if cramped chimneys are your thing. Still not much in the way of gear though... Possibly the crux of the climb.

Snow conditions were clearly improving with height though and the final pitch leading to the headwall was a joy with first time placements into firm neve the whole way. With so much neve on offer the lack of frozen turf was irrelevant. One solid piece of gear at half height as well, which felt a real treat to find. Maybe the greatest pleasure though was the weather with clear skies and virtually no wind. Would this count as a proper winter ascent without storm force winds to accompany?

Anna led the traverse right and then continued up the final gully. Conditions had been perfect in the upper 2/3 of climbing and today there was no reason to run from the summit. Sometimes when you are not sure what to expect from conditions, a positive outcome feels all the more rewarding.

Great Gable
Anna climbing towards the headwall
The traverse right
The final gully
And of course the views!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Out there... Andromeda (IV,4), Coire an Lochain

The relentless headwind during the walk-in to Coire an Lochain on Saturday was wild - as though subjected to a giant Dyson hand drier. We walked with our hoods up and heads down to shelter our eyes from the horizontal snow. A grouse flew past me, flying lateral to the direction it was facing. White-out conditions made navigation ‘challenging’, particularly with the path being buried in snow and any proceeding footprints having been scoured. I had visited the coire more than half a dozen times previously but was struggling to identify any landmarks.

Something felt wrong. The coire I knew to be slightly bowl-shaped with a ridge butting its right-hand side. Instead the ground felt as though it was subtly falling away either side of us as though we were on higher ground. The boulders that littered the coire were also absent and there was no sign of the loch. We had been walking north for too long and my altimeter suggested we were too high. I had my suspicion that we were either too far East or too far West but I was 50/50 as to which one. On a couple of occasions we stopped to consider turning back but then agreed there was no harm to push on a little further and see what presented.

Briefly the cloud lifted to the west to reveal flat ground, beyond which lay lowlands. We realised that we had overshot the coire and were now at Miadan Creag an Leth-choin to the South-West. Then a brief parting to the East revealed Cairn Lochan to confirm our whereabouts. We backtracked a short distance north to the edge to the coire - in Anna’s case via a small semi-frozen pond, which quickly cracked at its surface and engulfed one of her feet up to its ankle.

The slopes into the coire were wind-swept and icy so needed crampons. The cliffs remained hidden by cloud from the loch so closer investigation would be needed. At half height the buttresses came into view and were not surprisingly holding a lot of snow. Climbers to our left were backing off an approach towards Number 1 Buttress due to wind slab but a safe passage towards Number 2 Buttress was possible via a channel of old avalanche debris that was covered in only a thin layer of newly formed wind slab.

Andromeda looks viable. We tried to make a rock belay at the base of the route but soon gave up. Most of the rock was buried and what remain was covered in a three inch layer of ice. We chipped away at the ice but found nothing of use. At least a pair of planted axes felt solid enough so this would have to do. The first pitch looked easy so it was time to cut losses and start climbing.

Base of the route - Anna trying to smile with a bread role in her mouth
The climbing was steady with solid axes placements in firm snow. Finding gear was another matter and looked a remote possibility. 15m passed before I found a bulldog placement in frozen turf. At 25m I found a good nut placement with an offset nut placement just above. I was at the point where the route bore right from the Milky Way and so cut my losses and made a belay. Soon after Anna had joined me at the belay we heard a distant boom, which we acknowledged without words to be an avalanche somewhere in the coire.

Anna on the first pitch
The second pitch looked white but I hoped that the corner feature would offer up some protection with enough digging. 10m from the belay I uncovered a peg on my right.

10m above the peg… no gear

The corner was banked out with snow. Ice densely plastered any rock that wasn't submerged, leaving its surface featureless and me clueless as to where any cracks may lie. I paused whilst spindrift poured down - the first of many occasions.

20m above the peg… no gear

Cramped corners and indifferent snow conditions were a bad combination. I kicked in deep steps but didn't wholly trust some of my axe placements in the inconstantly consolidated snow. Enough searching around usually revealed something secure but the focus was always on spreading pressure equally between limbs in contact. I bridged my feet where possible to avoid overloading the snow locally and occasionally leant off the right-hand side of the corner to generate a ‘fifth’ point of contact.

I was clueless as to where to look for gear. My distance above the peg forced me to chip away the ice on a couple of occasions but this revealed nothing but blank rock. I felt I was only making the climbing harder by removing the vital layer of ice needed to climb the pitch.

30m above the peg… no gear!

…I would finish at the bottom of the route if I fell now.

I had by now largely given up trying to locate gear placements. The belay looked to be possibly ten metres away and so I needed to focus on the climbing. I made some delicate moves into a right-hand branch, aided by a positive left hook and then facilitated by some ice to my left higher up.


40m above the peg…

I cleared a wide crack and planted to two hexes…

…Finally the belay…

…Finally I was able to breathe relief.

A very serious pitch was below me. Easily V 4 in these conditions. Far more serious than any V that I could think of.

A combination of wind and spindrift avalanche meant my footholds were already largely filled in by the time Anna had reached the top of the pitch. Two inches of spindrift snow was balanced on my helmet, which I swept clean. The main difficulties I hoped were below us. Surely the junction with the top Central Crack Route was close at hand followed by the route exit. We heard another boom to our left from high up. Cornices were evidently collapsing but one more pitch I hoped would bring me to the top of the route.

I started up the third pitch by traversing right towards an obvious snow ramp weakness. Another avalanche sounded this time further right. I rounded a corner and was confronted by a massive drooping cornice less than fifteen metres above me, which overhung maybe three metres. It looped back on itself like a giant inverted wave. It looked ready to collapse any minute. I recognised the layout to be the top of Central Crack Route and so quickly moved left towards the route exit. Visibility was down to a matter of metres but hopefully a gap in the cornice would present. The rope went tight. I tugged at it and tried to climb on but it was hopeless. The switchback was leading to huge rope drag despite the absence of runners. I spied some bare rock beneath the cornice and so climbed up to it. If the cornice collapsed then the safest place to be would be directly underneath and behind its lip I figured. I planted my red hex in a horizontal gap, promptly tied in, and pulled the ropes through. ‘ON BELAY’ I shouted at full volume. I heard Anna’s high pitch acknowledgement in reply.

…Then the cornice above me collapsed …

It momentarily knocked me off my stance but the hex held. I looked up to see two metres of horizontal snow missing from the cornice. The huge cornice avalanche had slid towards Anna’s belay directly beneath me. I shouted her name but there was no response. I waited a few minutes to see if the rope to would slacken in response to her climbing but nothing happened. Gripped with anxiety I tied the lengths of ropes linked to Anna to the hex and then abseiled down the surplus rope. Halfway down the pitch I shouted her name and this time she responded. Relief ran through me to learn that she was unscathed. The wind had muted our shouts to one another. The delay in climbing was due to one of the belay hexes taking ten minutes to remove. A whitened Anna soon joined me at the belay. Her back and rucksack were plastered with avalanche debris but she was fine.

Snow was constantly blowing off the plateau and down the face, which made sighting an exit from the route impossible from our belay. I traversed out leftwards. Quickly the cornice receded above me but with it so did the shelter from the plateau elements. Snow blasted my face and body. I blindly kicked in steps, slowly progressing leftwards, making sure they were deep enough to fully support my weight before moving my axes across. I swept away the fresh build-up of snow directly below the summit in order to find some firmer placements and collapsed a small fragile cornice that was steadily reforming. Then acutely aware of my lack of runners I pulled myself over the top whilst enduring the wrath of the snow that was rapidly plastering my face in the process.

I kicked in a bucket seat of sorts and then sat down but quickly concluded it was too cold for sitting - even with my back to the wind. I stood up and belayed, confident that I could easily take the weight of Anna's little body in the event of a slip. Soon a white figure whose face was quickly riming up appeared over the top. My hexes were similarly covered in dense rime that made them look like giant pompoms. We briefly congratulated one another - with relief as much as anything and then turned our focus to getting off the plateau. Hurriedly we untied our ropes and shoved them into our bags.

Descending down the couloir would be a death trap so we looked to traverse to the ridge on the West side of the coire from where we could descend back into the coire basin. I carried a map and compass but the map was folded up in its original state rather than being open at the relevant section. Rearranging the map in such winds would be impossible and likely the map would shred. I opted to rely purely on bearings… something that would prove to be a huge mistake.

We could just make out the cornice edge in the white-out conditions so it made sense to follow this whilst possible to allow for easier navigation. Soon we lost sight of the edge and so followed a SW bearing. The light was totally flat with the only indication of ground being the occasional exposed icy section, which indicated safe passage towards it. Having followed a SW course for maybe ten minutes it felt the right time to start bearing West with the view to swinging North around the edge of the coire.

The slopes became mildly wind slabbed and totally featureless as we descended. Snow and sky were merged into one. I progressed slowly, deliberately kicking snow ahead of me in order to create some texture to the ground directly ahead of me. I thought I saw a dark object a short distance in front of me and so assumed the ground between was safe.

…Then I was falling…

I hit the ground and then tumbled over something else. I slid down the mountain in a disorientated state. I tried to arrest myself with one of my axes but I was riding an avalanche with the surrounding snow was travelling at the same velocity. I plunged my axe pick deeper into the snow. Gradually I came to a halt. Or had I? Avalanche debris continued to poor down around me and the relative movement between the flowing snow and myself left me confused as to whether I had actually stopped, or otherwise. Somehow I was still clinging to the compass with the same hand that had arrested with my axe. My other axe was tethered on my leash between my feet.

Anna was nowhere to be seen.

I wasn't sure whether she fallen with me. 

I wasn't sure whether I had fallen through a cornice or triggered a slab avalanche. 

Then with relief I heard her voice above shouting my name from somewhere above. I shouted back but she couldn't hear me. I started to climb back the up the slope but was unsure of which direction to climb or how far she was away. I was worried that we could become separated. Snow continued to poor down the channel of snow that I had presumably fallen down. I looked across to see Number 4 Buttress through the cloud – fortunately a long way to my east.

Then I remembered our radios and spoke a few words to Anna to confirm I was ok. I told her to shout my name continuously so that I could judge her position. I shouted back in reassurance but the wind muted my shouts. Soon she was blowing her whistle, which much more clearly defined her location. I climbed in her direction. It became apparent that I had tumbled about 60m before applying the breaks. Anna’s voice sounded distant, even when only a few metres below her, such was the strength of the wind. She couldn’t even see me through the white-out despite my close proximity below the cornice, which it was now evident that I had fallen through.

I tried to climb a section of cornice left of Anna but quickly realised it was too steep and unconsolidated to be safe from another fall. I spied directly beneath Anna an almost vertical slab – presumably where the cornice had slid with me on board. The slab was lined with hard névé. Carefully I climbed it acutely aware that one mistake would lead to a similar tumble. I was reunited with Anna who had managed to stay surprisingly calm despite thinking that I had possibly fallen down one of the main buttresses.

We skirted further west before bearing to a more northerly direction. This time we had found a safe passage. Now the ground fell away at a gentle rate and became increasingly more scoured, which allowed us to identify the contours of the ground more readily. Every metre of descent felt a step closer to safety. First sight of the loch was the real indicator that we were on route. The rest would be simple from here. All paths lead to the car park.

We arrived back at the car park for 6pm. In hindsight we were on the wrong aspect for the given avalanche conditions. That’s said, it had snowed a lot more than expected in the afternoon, which had escalated the avalanche risk. Better preparation for navigation off the plateau in white-out blizzard conditions would have helped matters. We had the right bearings but I should have been counting my paces to better indicate my position. I had maybe been a little blasé given my general familiarity with lay-out of the Northern Corries.
I hoped the day’s dramas wouldn’t kill Anna’s enthusiasm for winter climbing - given that she was just starting out. On the contrary it seemed to have the opposite affect. The day had been a little too epic but at least Anna had seen the ‘worst’ that Scottish winter has to offer. Everything else should will feel like a walk of Clapham Common.